Pragmatism and American Culture

Pragmatism and American Culture

Pragmatism and American Culture

Pragmatism and American Culture


In 1778 the French statesman Turgot wrote of the Americans:

This people is the hope of the human race. It may become the model. It ought to show the world by facts, that men can be free and yet peaceful, and may dispense with the chains in which tyrants and knaves of every colour have presumed to bind them, under pretext of the public good. The Americans should be an example of political, religious, commercial and industrial liberty.

For Turgot the American Revolution opened a new chapter in human history, because America was the first society explicitly founded upon a philosophy of liberty. That philosophy was expressed in the Declaration of Independence. And the rights and freedoms which Jefferson had declared in the eighteenth century were reaffirmed in their separate ways by Emerson and Whitman during the middle period of our history. These men were the philosophers of American democracy.

The only obvious successor in our day to the philosophies of Jefferson and Emerson and Whitman is the "pragmatism" of William James and John Dewey. All of the critics from whose writings selections have been made for this volume agree that Pragmatism is an indigenous American philosophy; most of them would add that it is the philosophy which best expresses the "climate of opinion" peculiar to American civilization. Their criticisms, therefore, take two forms: they may argue that, granted pragmatism is a native philosophy, it is but a partial and inadequate representation of certain trends within our culture; or they may contend that pragmatism is only too faithful a transcription of American life. Critics of the first sort will disparage those particular traits of our society which they think pragmatism represents; critics of the second kind will deliver a wholesale condemnation of "Americanism." In effect, therefore, all of these writers in their discussions of the pragmatic philosophy are censuring what is distinctive of American culture itself, in some of its aspects or as a whole.

The critics from whose writings a selection has been made for this volume, though there are some interesting points of agreement among them, represent four distinct groups: Lewis Mumford speaks for a set of literary critics and publicists, such men as Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank and Van Wyck Brooks, authors who have similar opinions about "pragmatic America"; Reinhold Niebuhr writes from the viewpoint of that form of Protestant Christianity known as "neoorthodoxy"; Mortimer J. Adler is a Thomist, though not a Catholic; and Howard Selsam states the Marxist position.

The first selection, chapters one and two of James' Pragmatism (1907), gives in his inimitably fresh and vigorous style a characterization of the pragmatic attitude towards philosophical problems and . . .

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